Britten’s War Requiem – 50 years on

A memorable evening in Coventry Cathedral

Coventry CathedralBritten surely missed a trick when his War Requiem was performed for the first time at Coventry Cathedral back in May 1962. Namely, why did he and his fellow organisers not think of staging the new work at the west end of the Cathedral rather than the east?

To explain… The backdrop for the War Requiem’s famous premiere, performed to mark the consecration of the new Cathedral, was Graham Sutherland’s enormous tapestry of Christ that hangs behind the altar. It’s an impressive sight, yes, but by all accounts the area proved too cramped a space for such vast forces (soloists, huge chorus, symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra…). And, more to the point, the other end of the building would have given the occasion a far more powerful visual impact. Just think: orchestra and rows of singers alike in front of the huge West Window, behind which stand the ruins of the war-destroyed old cathedral itself. The ideal context for a work such as this.

Thankfully, the brains behind yesterday’s 50th anniversary performance did think just that, and the result was one of the most visually arresting concert settings I can remember. Make that the most visually arresting. And an extraordinarily poignant one too.

Andris NelsonsPerformed by the CBSO and CBSO Chorus under Andris Nelsons (left), this was always going to be one of the year’s major concert dates, and tickets sold out long ago. It’s also an event, however, that has been beset by more than its fair share of bad news, beginning with the withdrawal of baritone soloist Thomas Quasthoff late last year when he announced his retirement due to declining health. And then, just days ago, the death was announced of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang in that 1962 premiere. Last night’s performance was dedicated to his memory.

Whether the work itself is a masterpiece is open to doubt – was Britten’s anguish at the rehearsals of its premiere partly down to the realisation that he’d created something that was less than the sum of its considerable parts? That said, those parts are quite something, not least when in the hands of as insightful a conductor as Nelsons. Particular highlights came in the extraordinarily powerful Libera Me, and the shattering setting of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting towards the close.

Britten complained about the Cathedral’s roomy acoustic, but Fischer-Dieskau himself told me in an interview just a few months ago that he thought it suited the work excellently. On balance, I’d side with the German. Yes, we did lose some detail, particularly in the more intricate solo passages by the excellent Mark Padmore (tenor) and Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone), but this was more than made up for by the assistance it gave to both the main choir and (placed at a suitably atmospheric distance at the east end) the CBSO Youth Choir. As one friend pointed out to me as we made our way out at the end, he’s heard quite enough War Requiems lose their impact – the sense of space between performers is vital – thanks to an over-dry acoustic. No chance of that here.

But back to that backdrop. Time and again, the pathos of Owen’s words from World War One was given added force simply by the sight of those cathedral ruins, the result of another global conflict just 22 years later. Of around 1000 buildings in Coventry city centre, just 31 were left in touch. It was a concert to move like no other.

Am I being melodramatic? Well, judge for yourself. The 50th anniversary concert was broadcast live in Europe and will be available on an Arthaus DVD later this year. If they have captured just a fraction of the impact of the occasion, I’d recommend it without hesitation.